Posts Tagged ‘James Scott Bell’

In a post last week I wrote about James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle. Afterwards, AC Macklin raised a rather sensible question whose answer I had skipped over – what were the things of value I learned from this book? In my enthusiasm to talk about the book in general, I missed the useful details. So here they are…

Explaining the Value of Structure

There’s a quote from the book that I included last week – ‘Structure is translation software for your imagination.’ I think that quote, and what it represents, are very useful in understanding the value of structure.

Structure isn’t there to tell you what story to write or what ideas to discuss. It’s there to help you turn those ideas into something coherent and accessible, to fit your story into the form you’re writing in, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay or a haiku.

Act One

Bell raised a set of interesting questions to make sure you’re covering the important things in the first act of your story:

  • have you given readers a character worth following?
  • is there a disturbance to their life early on?
  • do you know the death stakes of the story? – this doesn’t have to mean literal death, but what physical, emotional or professional destruction the character is threatened with
  • is there a scene forcing the character into the confrontation of act two, and is it strong enough that the character can’t resist getting involved?

These are ideas I was already familiar with, but Bell’s list provides a great sanity check, a way of making sure that the elements are in place to make the story compelling.

The Midpoint

Bell refined my thinking on the midpoint. In Wells’s seven point structure, this is the moment when the protagonist becomes pro-active. For Bell, it’s a point where the forces arrayed against the protagonist seem so vast that if they go on they will almost certainly face physical, psychological or professional death.

These are quite different things to build the centre of a story around, but what strikes me is that they’re both about the need to make a decision to act, whether by switching from passivity to pro-activity, or by deciding to act despite the danger.

I think that combining those two could make for some incredibly powerful central story moments.

Proving Change

A good character arc is almost always about change. Bell points out that this change needs to be proven by the character’s actions, not just something they think or talk about. By working outwards from inner revelation to actual acts, you prove far more effectively that the character has changed, both to the reader and to the other characters in the story.

Flaw

The need for characters to have flaws is common advice. Bell suggests a refinement of this, that if you can it’s good to give your central character a moral flaw that is hurting others.

OK, that’s a potentially very dark point, but it’s similar in value to that point about proving change. A moral flaw that hurts others is more substantial – it has real consequences, not just internalised angst, and it matters to other characters. It’s a much more substantial flaw.

Pitching

The single most useful thing I got out of this book wasn’t about structuring my stories, it was about pitching them. The pitch structure Bell provides consists of three sentences:

  1. Your lead character’s name, vocation and initial situation.
  2. ‘When’ + the main plot problem.
  3. ‘Now’ + the death stakes.

Despite years of being told I should have elevator pitches for my projects at work, I never got the hang of pitching. But reading this gave me such a clear, simple structure to follow that I immediately went and tried it out on the stories I’m writing. So, for the book I’m currently working on:

Dirk Dynamo is enjoying a life of learning with the gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club. Joining an expedition to find the Great Library of Alexandria, Dirk finds himself on the island of Hakon, where colonial life is not what it seems. With monsters in the jungle, conspiracies in the mansion and ninjas dogging his trail, can Dirk and his friends find the first clue to the Library before they meet a deadly fate?

OK, I didn’t actually use the words ‘when’ and ‘now’, but the essence of the structure is there. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more excited about my book after seeing it summarised like that. That’s most of my blurb right there.

On Writing Life

Finally, there were two points that I wrote out on cards and stuck to my desk to remind myself of their importance

  • when writing becomes drudgery go do something else for a while
  • daydream about the rewards of your writing, however intangible, to keep you motivated

I struggle with motivation a lot. These were good reminders of things that I know in principle but often forget in practice.

Worth the Reading

The focus of my previous post on Write Your Novel From the Middle probably seemed down on the book, because I was disappointed after hearing it raved about. But as I also said in that post, there was stuff of real value in there, and I consider it time and money well spent. Just not the game changer it’s sometimes sold as being.

Whatever we do in life, we get better by learning from other people. Whether it’s plumbing, writing or how to make the perfect fried egg, even if we don’t agree with them, seeing someone else’s technique can help us reflect on our own. I’m always going to have a lot to learn about writing as a craft – anyone who writes does. So when I see a lot of people enthusing about a writing book, I’m going to give it a go. Several people I respect have recommended James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle, so it seemed like time to give it a go.

You’ve Got to Start From Somewhere

‘Structure is the translation software for your imagination.’ – James Scott Bell

I like having structures to write with. They act as reminders of the fundamentals needed in a story. If they’ve worked well before then following the structures others use can help you to write something better, something more readers will enjoy.

I know some people don’t like the idea of following a structure. They think it constricts creativity. I disagree. I think that structures support creativity, and only becoming stifling when you follow them blindly. To paraphrase Pratchett, rules are there so that we think before we break them. That’s the benefit of using a structure like Bell’s – it means you don’t have to reinvent the plotting wheel, but can spin off from it when you feel that’s appropriate.

There’s no doubting that Bell provides a useful structure. I can see why this book is popular – it presents a clear approach that’s easy to use, ties together character and plot, and should provide the ups and downs a story needs. It’s even got a neat little gimmick to sell it by – that you’re starting from the middle.

It’s not entirely true, but it is a neat gimmick.

One More Option

But this book didn’t blow my mind or provide me with massive new ideas in the way I’d hoped for from the hype. I think that’s because I’m already following a structure much like Bell’s, but from a different source.

Bell’s structure has a lot in common with the seven point story structure favoured by Dan Wells, and which I use for almost all my stories. You don’t really start in the middle, you start by knowing where you’re going from and to, work out what the key turning point is at the centre of the book, and build in turns and pinches from there. The labels are different, and Bell adds some useful details I wasn’t using before, but in many ways it’s the same beast.

If you want to strengthen your plotting this is definitely a useful book. I’ve noted down half a dozen things from it in my notebook on technique, and if I hadn’t already seen Wells’s structure talk it would have hugely reinvigorated my writing. But because of where I’m at, it didn’t entirely live up to the hype.

It’s useful to have a range of structures you can work with, so that you can pick one that suits you. Bell’s writing from the middle is one more useful structure. It’s just not one I’ll be following.

No, the other sort of serial.

No, the other sort of serial.

Today sees the release of Avast, Ye Airships!, featuring the latest adventure from my recurring Victorian heroes Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms. So what better way to celebrate than a nice cup of tea? No, wait, I mean a blog post on writing serial fiction.

Origins of a List

A fellow writer and I recently discussed what makes good serial fiction. Not a slowly unfolding plot like Game of Thrones, but something like The Dresden Files, where readers can dip into and enjoy any episode that comes to hand, but fans who follow the series can get a little more out of it. From this discussion I’ve assembled a list below of key points that I think make this fiction work well. It’s not meant as a definitive list, more a work in progress. Like any template, its usefulness would come as much in carefully ignoring points sometimes as in following them all. Still, I think that following these points could help to structure an accessible series that keeps people coming back.

The trick with this sort of series is working out how to make it exciting without anything much changing, and the list is built around that. Have a read, see what you think.

Protagonist

Unchanging character.

Fully formed at start – probably save origin story for later, as it’s the sort of story you’re never likely to top.

If start with origin story, make sure to wrap it in one go.

A decent person just trying to make their way in the world.

Honourable.

Sidekick

Friendly sidekick.

More likeable than the character.

More moral.

Less competent.

Can be the point of view character, especially if the protagonist has skills or thought patterns that are hard for the writer to portray in detail, eg. genius or expert in an obscure field of study. Think Holmes and Watson.

Setting

Unchanging environment.

Rich and varied – plenty of variety to explore.

Romance

String of short romantic entanglements

and/or

Ongoing sexual tension with secondary character (a book and a half into The Dresden Files, I’m thinking of Murphy, though James Bond’s Moneypenny also deserves a mention).

Arch-rival

A nasty but charming antagonist.

Sympathy for the antagonist.

Individual antagonists can be defeated, but the arch-rival remains present in the background throughout, often setting up other problems.

Individual Story Structure

(A lot of this came from the other writer, and is apparently taken from James Scott Bell, whose Write Your Novel from the Middle is now waiting for me on my Kindle)

98% closure on each story.

Invite readers to continue, don’t make them obliged by cliffhangers.

Trouble starts on page one.

Unpredictability.

A spiral of trouble.

A love triangle.

A fluid, no-speedbumps writing style.

A ticking clock.

A resonant ending.

Overall Structure

Subtle hooks – set up characters and details in background of earlier stories to use in later stories – adds interest and substance.

Potential Uber-Structure

(This is where I got over-excited and went off on one…)

Say you’re writing a sci-fi crime drama, and the main villain is Mr Z. You don’t want him in every time, but you want him to be behind everything. You can’t have the hero permanently beat him, but if he only ever beats a villain of the week type it’s less satisfying.

So structure the series in groups of three or four books. You have one or two in which the hero faces and defeats villains just for that book, while a henchman of Mr Z is built up because of his connections to them.

Then you have a book in which, after building this henchman up, you let the protagonist beat him, permanently getting rid of that henchman. By then it’s become clear that these two or three stories have led up to a bigger plan by Mr Z.

In the last book of that particular cycle the hero thwarts said plan, significantly setting back Mr Z, but still leaving him around. Maybe Mr Z gets sent to prison and is busted out during the next cycle. Maybe he just loses out in some big way. The important thing is, the villain’s still in play.

What’s Missing

So, fellow readers and writers, what do you make of that? What have your experiences with serial fiction been – what works for you and what doesn’t? What have I missed or miss-judged?

And if you ever feel like using this list, please let me know how you get on.

Picture by frankieleon via Flickr Creative Commons.

What books are you excited about at the moment? Here’s my current reading heap, or at least the tip of it.

Second Chance by Dylan Hearn

A science fiction story that combines politics, technology and crime in an intriguing near future tangle. Being a fan of abeyance, I like the way that the world is slowly built up through dialogue, thoughts and actions, revealing how Hearn’s imagined future is different from now. It’s definitely a novel that’s focused on plot and pace rather than intricate prose – for example, there’s almost no physical description of the characters, letting you fill in the blanks as you see fit. I’m maybe a fifth of the way through, and really looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

Several writing buddies have recommended this to me as a top book on plotting. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

Plus my legs are really tired from working at my new standing desk, and reading this is a productive writing thing I can do while sitting down.

Seriously, my right calf is killing me. Who’d have thought standing still would be so much exercise?

The Bookman Histories by Lavie Tidhar

I’m still slowly working my way through this, and it’s still worth the effort. Somewhere around page 180 of the first book things have taken an unexpected turn, feeling much more pulp action oriented than what came before. The references to history and other works are also becoming less obstructive and more part of the natural flow of the story.

I stand by my initial assessment that this is an incredibly rich read full of fantastic ideas. Now it’s one that’s found some pace as well.

Over to you

What are you folks reading at the moment? Anything you’d care to recommend? And if you’ve read any of these books what did you think? Share your literary appreciation by leaving a comment.